December 21

Wayan Vota

The Mobile Trap: How Safaricom and Other MNOs Prey on the Poor

There are multiple development initiatives to increase women’s ownership and usage of mobile phones – everyone from GSMA to USAID to mobile network operators (MNOs) themselves recognize the digital gender gap as a real issue that needs to be addressed.

While development actors look at how mobiles can increase women’s health outcomes, educational attainment, economic standings and security perceptions, MNOs are motivated by the profit potential from selling services to half the world’s population.


Might Mobile Ownership Be A Trap?

There are “differential motivations” between what rural women want to do with their mobile phones and what mobile network operators want users to do. These differences affect the design of MNOs’ products and services, sometimes to the detriment of rural women.

Let’s take rural women in Western Kenya near Lake Victoria. As Susan Wyche, Nightingale Simiyu and Martha Othieno found in their study, Mobile phones as amplifiers of social inequality among rural Kenyan women, Safaricom’s desire to profit off rural women is so strong that mobile phone ownership became a net loss for rural women.

The study’s rural women participants mostly wanted to use Safaricom’s network to communicate with friends and family, taking advantage of the nonrevenue-generating services like receiving calls, “flashing” and sending “Please Call Me” messages. Their use of these services result in little, if any, monetary gain for Safaricom. That is until we look closely at Safaricom’s design decisions, which ensure that the company does benefit from these rural users.


The Skiza Tunes Scam

Safaricom has made it deceptively easy to subscribe to Skiza Tunes, a premium ringtone service that plays music when people call a phone. Please Call Me messages have Skiza ads, and people who call Skiza subscribers are asked to dial 11 if they like the song they hear.

Some women in the study said they like Skiza Tunes; however, the majority saw it as a hidden fee that consumed their airtime. That’s a normal complaint, but where it borders on a predatory business practice is the difficulty for people to unsubscribe, particularly rural women who many not have the device literacy, or digital literacy, to follow the abstruse instructions for unsubscribing.

The researchers found that the USSD-protocol process requires users to enter a short code, navigate five different menus, answer queries by inputting a number, scroll to the bottom of menus, translate unfamiliar terms (i.e., “Selfcare” and “International Voice Bundles”), and select an option that provides no feedback to confirm that the user has actually unsubscribed. For a rural woman, this complicated process makes unsubscribing from Skiza a near-impossibility.

Skiza’s cost is automatically deducted from the subscribers’ available airtime, and while its cost stops when it depletes a user’s account, other Premium Rate Services continue to bill users, creating negative balances and negative impressions of mobile phone usefulness.

For example, as part of the study, the researchers gave the women KES 100 airtime scratch cards, but moments after adding the credit to one woman’s phone, she only had KES 4 of airtime. The researchers found that she was subscribed to five Premium Rate Services, and had been KES 96 in debt.

The researchers found this loss of airtime to pay off debt was a common occurrence, to the point that the study had to create how-to videos just so women could unsubscribe and stop losing airtime to these predatory services.


Safaricom Preys on Everyone

Interestingly, unsubscribing from Skiza and other Premium Rate Services is difficult for Safaricom’s more digitally savvy subscribers too, and customer dissatisfaction has reached the point that popular blogger Cyprian Nyakundi published an open letter to Safaricom CEO Robert Bob Collymore showcasing how Safaricom’s relationship with Premium Rate Services is bad for everyone.

These services are offered by a category of companies calling themselves Premium Service Providers. Try sharing this with your friends and you will see the extent to which this fraud is being perpetrated. If there are any people who will find that they have subscribed, chances are that they have no clue how they got subscribed in the first place.

Yesterday, I looked at my daughter’s account and realized that she had subscribed to ELEVEN of these services! I would urge you to tell all your family members to check their accounts too. One of the ways they trick you into subscribing is by having some banner somewhere as you are surfing the net, or pop-ups, which you accidentally click on.

As much as Safaricom tries to pass the buck to their employees, there is no way they can convince anyone that they are not in on it due to the fact that these service providers that are guilty of perpetrating this fraud are still on their platform. Secondly, they have not gone out of their way to educate their clients about how to unsubscribe from unwanted services.


Why Are We Helping?

Safaricom is not unique in using Premium Rate Services to fleece consumers of their hard-earned shillings. MNOs around the world are getting better at promoting premium services through automated processes that continuously pester for subscription yet are frustratingly hard to end. The real question is: Why are we helping?

The development community prides itself on being advocates for the poor, and digital development practitioners have the added responsibility to advocate for cyber-marginalized citizens. We should not be blindly driving women to own and use mobile phones, when those devices will only impoverish them further.

We need to stand up to Safaricom, other MNOs, and Premium Rate Service providers, and demand a principled approach to mobile services. The user should not be impoverished, the digitally illiterate should not be exploited, and we all should not be complicit through inaction with either.


Wayan Vota is the senior mobile advisor at FHI 360 and a cofounder of ICTworks.

This post originally appeared on ICTworks and is reprinted here with permission.

Home page photo by Erik (HASH) Hersman via Flickr


business development, financial inclusion